“Personally, I’m pro‑life,” my friend declared. “But when it comes to abortion legislation, I’m pro‑choice. I don’t want to impose my convictions upon society. After all, you can’t legislate morality.”
Is it really true that government can’t legislate morality? We hear it all the time, and for years I believed it myself. I don’t anymore.
I don’t expect you to agree with everything you read here, since legislating morality is controversial. Honest citizens, honest Christians, fervently disagree about what should be the law of the land and what should be left up to personal conscience. This is my attempt to contribute to the ongoing discussion.
Imagine the anarchy in our land if civil morality were not legislated and enforced. How could society survive? No man would be safe from being murdered, and no woman would have a refuge from rapists. And no baby could rest secure from the risk of being kidnapped or aborted.
For the common good of all citizens, the Constitution of the United States and laws other civilized nations safeguard life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those who favor abortion rights are enthusiastic about preserving personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but they fall short of protecting life in the womb.
“Keep your convictions to yourself,” they say. “Don’t try to legislate morality.” They forget that society needs law and order—civil morality. When it comes to religious morality, however, we must draw a line in the legislative sand. The Bible itself distinguishes between our civil responsibility to government and our personal religious obligation to God. Jesus said: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). So we must keep separate whatever belongs to Caesar (civil government) from whatever belongs to God (religious matters).
Those two moral classifications are evident in the biblical Ten Commandments. Human government cannot enforce commandments pertaining to one’s relationship with God. But those relating to citizenship—”Thou shalt not kill,” for example—are essential in any society to preserve law and order. These commandments the state must uphold by whatever means necessary to protect life and property. And since unborn babies are living human beings, they are entitled to the same protection as any other member of society. Does this not require the legislation of civil morality.
Prayer that’s not OK
When it comes to religion, however, government must protect the free expression of faith—but not promote it. Yes, it would be wonderful if everybody would choose of himself or herself to believe in God and accept biblical morality. But whose interpretation of the Bible? That’s the question.
A while back the state legislature in California had a Buddhist chaplain. Christians didn’t appreciate having their tax dollars sponsoring pagan prayers. Likewise, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and atheists aren’t happy that the United States Senate appoints a Christian chaplain to offer prayer in the national legislative chambers. Any type of government‑sponsored chaplaincy that favors one religion over another is inappropriate.
What about school prayer? Certainly, children should pray everywhere, including in school. But who should teach them to pray? Do we want Catholic prayers? Protestant prayers? Jewish prayers? Hindu, or Muslim prayers?
When government gets into the business of sponsoring prayer, some citizens always find themselves left out. That’s why government should avoid promoting religious behavior—and why we Adventists need to maintain our own parochial school system.
Public prayer that may be OK
Not all church members can send their children to Adventist schools. In such cases, our young people can counter the secular environment by initiating prayer and fellowship groups for fellow students. Their religious activities are perfectly legal as long as the school itself doesn’t sponsor or support them. And that’s how it ought to be, don’t you think? If the students want to pray by themselves, Uncle Sam should forbid them not.
Is there any occasion where prayer or religious testimony is appropriate at an official public school function? Suppose a student earns the right to make a speech because of some personal achievement, such as becoming the class valedictorian. Consider the case of Angela Guidry. As a high school graduate in the 1990s, she wanted to include a few sentences in her valedictory thanking God for her scholastic achievements. The Louisiana teenager felt it would be wrong to accept the honor without giving Him the glory. The principal, however, denied her right of free speech, not wanting her audience to be exposed to partisan religious influences. Did he do the right thing?
No, in my opinion. While it would have been improper for the school to arrange for prayer or religious testimony, Angela had earned the right to compose her own speech and say whatever she pleased within the bounds of respect and decency. Had school officials permitted her testimony, they wouldn’t have been showing religious preference. State‑sponsored religion was not the issue.
The principal no doubt meant well, but he robbed that young woman of a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity for which she had studied so hard. Rather than accepting human honor without giving glory to God, Angela decided to forgo her speech entirely. To me, she suffered an inexcusable obstruction of her personal religious liberty and her freedom of speech.
Now, suppose the captain of the football team is expected to address fellow teammates or spectators before a game, and he wants to offer public prayer. Is that OK? I think so. The school would have no business appointing someone to pray; that would be religious favoritism on behalf of whomever they sponsored. But if a student qualifies himself through some personal achievement to make a speech—and he wants that speech to be a prayer—how would the school have a right to suppress that person’s privilege of free speech?
Peril of government‑sponsored religion
Having affirmed what I consider to be legitimate public prayer and testimony, I’d like to say again that government itself should not sponsor religious expression. That could lead to other intrusions into the sacred circle of personal faith, resulting ultimately in persecution.
Many imagine that it’s fine if the government sponsors religious faith as long as it doesn’t favor one particular church. To them, separation of church and state merely forbids a state‑sponsored denomination. This may seem reasonable at first, but an experiment of this type long ago in the American colonies bore disastrous results. The state of Maryland, where I’ve lived much of my life, was founded primarily as a refuge for persecuted Catholics. Christians of all faiths were welcome, though. The Maryland assembly in 1649 proclaimed an “Act of Toleration,” which provided that all who confess Jesus would be accepted as citizens. Yet even this so‑called “Act of Toleration,” as sincere as it was, inspired religious persecution. No liberty was offered to non‑Christians. And even fellow believers who disbelieved a particular doctrine of the Trinity found themselves ticketed for the death penalty.
Persecution naturally results when faith becomes law—even when non‑denominational faith gets enforced. God Himself will not force faith. Why then should we? But civil morality, which protects the rights of fellow human beings—born and unborn—deserves the full support of all citizens and organizations, including the church.
Back in the 1850s the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that African Americans are not human—not in the full sense of the word. Many professed Christians actually supported that damnable Dred Scott decision. Others disagreed yet refused to join the crusade for the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps they didn’t wish to get entangled in legislating morality, even though human lives were being violated by slavery.
In 1973 the Supreme Court again denied the reality of humanity in Roe vs. Wade. And once again many Christians are keeping quiet, not wanting to get involved in what they regard as a political debate. They seem to overlook that helpless preborn babies might need constitutional protection like everyone else. Silence is regrettable regarding either of those mistaken Supreme Court decisions. And it is just as wrong for churches to remain silent as for private citizens.
To clarify: I’m not suggesting that any church should get involved in partisan politics—Democrats versus Republicans. That would be a serious mistake. Without entangling itself in political debate, however, our church can and should serve as a moral watchman in the land, speaking out for social justice and civil morality. Our goal is not to enforce but to inform, not to control but to offer counsel. In this advisory role it is entirely appropriate for Adventists to urge the state to preserve liberty and justice for all. Including the unborn.
Some who disagree with me suggest that if abortion has any connection with religious concern, then it should not be a matter of civil legislation. Well, sexual violence is also a profoundly religious matter, being a violation of the Ten Commandments—but does that remove it from the realm of civil law? Many sins have both religious and civil implications. The question for legislators and the courts to grapple with is whether a particular law can stand on its own without being supported by religious belief. That’s the determining factor.
Even though one’s primary motive might well be religious in avoiding such sins as rape and murder, those crimes can be prohibited solely on secular grounds without any reference to religion. But no such civil justification exists to enforce purely religious matters, such as school-sponsored prayer or Sunday keeping.
What about legislation to forbid birth control? The Roman Catholic Church has its own theology of sex that condemns birth control of any kind as sinful (although surveys show that many American Catholics reject Rome’s position). The discussion is an internal church matter outside the realm of civil law. Birth control doesn’t threaten human life as abortion does. Therefore the debate about birth control is restricted to the realm of religious morality, while abortion extends to the public arena of civil morality,
The key question concerning abortion legislation is whether the fetus is a living person, since the state has a civil responsibility to protect human life and property. If abortion didn’t stop a beating heart, it would be merely a religious matter like birth control. But since an unborn baby is alive, it deserves the same protection afforded by the Constitution to all people.
We must remind ourselves again and again that religious preference is not the issue here. Only because anti‑abortion legislation preserves human life does it falls within the realm of civil morality.
Pornography threatens society
Another area of dispute regarding civil morality is the restriction of pornography. Many who personally despise it still defend the existence of even hard-core porn, seeking to safeguard their own constitutional right of free speech. They wish to avoid censorship at all costs. In reality, however, don’t all of us believe in censorship to some degree? What responsible citizen would defend child pornography, the criminal exploitation of children? Obviously certain boundaries must be set—unlimited free expression cannot exist.
The key question regarding pornography is: Where do we draw the line? Well, what did our founding fathers have in mind when they guaranteed free speech in the First Amendment? Students of history know that Jefferson, Madison and Washington were guarding against religious and political repression. Do you think they would have risked their lives so that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could inspire bloodthirsty audiences?
How long can society retain its sanity while tolerating such shocking, revolting abuse of women? Must we put up with a volcano of violence and smut to protect the First Amendment?
Greedy pornographers are quick to remind us about their First Amendment rights. But don’t women and children have rights as well? Don’t they have the right to walk our streets without fear of attack?
Some say, “If you don’t like pornography, just stay away from it. Don’t buy it, don’t look at it, ignore it.” They miss the point. Others are buying, others are consuming pornography — molesters, rapists and murderers. According to an FBI study of serial murderers, the common interest they share most is an obsession with pornography. Evidently, when those who tend toward violence view the violence in hard‑core pornography, they hear an evil voice whispering, “Go and do thou likewise.”
Figure it out for yourself. If pornography induces only a tenth of one percent of American men to assault women and children, more than 10,000 rapists, molesters, and murderers would be unleashed.
Some will concede at this point that violent pornography is bad, but “normal” porn is OK. I suggest that even non-violent pornography is debatable. According to the sworn testimony of criminals, the so‑called soft-core pornography such as Playboy magazine opens the door to hard-core, violent pornography. Many believe it also contributes to our staggering divorce rate. Think about how many men are abandoning their wives for younger women. Is it possible that one reason for this is that pornography has spoiled their appreciation for what they already had at home?
Divorce cases clog our already overstuffed court system. Beyond that, boys without Dad around are far more prone to join gangs and become criminals. Pornographers must accept some of the blame for America’s shattered families. Personally, I believe we can and we must oppose pornography because it threatens the public good. Not on the basis of religious preference, of course, since faith cannot be legislated.
(All that said, I concede it would be impossible to even consider abolishing pornography, since the Internet is beyond such controls.)
Nineteenth century precedent
Some Adventists who resist the legislation of civil morality forget that our church has never been shy about promoting ordinances that regulate liquor licenses and public smoking. In fact, our pioneers left us a distinguished heritage of campaigning for civil morality that few of us realize or appreciate. But what happens when a legitimate campaign for civil morality gets entangled with a mistaken push for religious legislation?
A crisis of this nature developed in the late nineteenth century when the alcohol prohibition movement linked forces with the drive for a national Sunday law. Seventh‑day Adventist leaders at their General Conference session debated what to do. The Minneapolis Tribune reported on their discussion in an article entitled, “The Sunday Question”: “First and foremost was the question of Prohibition and the keeping of the Sabbath [Sunday], for the proper observance of which the W.T.C.U. [sic: WCTU; Women's Christian Temperance Union] is now making such strenuous exertions.”[i]
Notice the decision of the church council: “Resolved. That while we pledge ourselves to labor earnestly and zealously for the prohibition of the liquor traffic, we hereby utter an earnest protest against connecting with the temperance movement any legislation which discriminates in favor of any religious class or institution, or which tends to the infringement of anybody’s religious liberty, and that we cannot sustain or encourage any temperance party or any other organization which indorses [sic] or favors such legislation.”[ii]
Wise words here. Church leaders did promote prohibition—legislation requiring government enforcement of civil morality—but not religious morality—Sunday keeping. They opposed legislation that “discriminates in favor of any religious class or institution, or which tends to the infringement of anybody’s religious liberty.” In other words: civil legislation yes, religious legislation—no.
Some Christians concerned about religious liberty defend the practice of abortion. They fear that the same moral crusaders now fighting the cause of pro‑life will eventually cross the line from civil morality into a campaign for religious morality. No doubt millions who seek to outlaw abortion will soon be campaigning to restrict religious liberty, but should that keep us from upholding necessary civil morality—protecting law and order, life and property (including unborn life)?
I think not. If our purpose for opposing abortion legislation is to preserve our own life and liberty, that would be sad indeed. It would mean that we care more about saving ourselves than saving innocent unborn babies. Such cowardly selfishness seems quite the opposite of what Jesus taught about laying down our lives for our brethren. Our Lord also said, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:40).
We might learn something from the example of Ellen White, who was a fervent crusader for civil morality. She campaigned vigorously for prohibition legislation, joining forces with the WCTU. Even after that organization jumped on the Sunday law bandwagon, she maintained her public association with it. The Minneapolis Journal (10/20/1888) reported: “All her life she has been prominent in temperance work and next Sunday she will address the W.T.C.U. [sic]“[iii]
A remarkable incident indeed. Ellen White, a fervent Sabbath keeper, became an honored guest of the very ones who pushed so hard for a national Sunday law! She somehow managed to keep from compromising her convictions. No doubt her speech to the WCTU, while commending its eagerness for civil morality, also cautioned about its encroachment onto religious morality.
So Ellen White refused to cross the sacred line between civil and religious morality yet took an active stand with those who favored civil morality. Is there a lesson here for us when it comes to abortion legislation
No doubt if Ellen White were alive today she would continue the crusade for moral legislation. She would find little common cause with groups like People for the American Way. Founded by Hollywood magnate Norman Lear, PAW resists all attempts to “impose” morality on the entertainment business. Lear’s group is the moral equivalent of the Tobacco Institute. Both organizations bask in the glorious freedoms afforded by the First Amendment: “This is America! We have freedom! You can’t tell us not to advertise tobacco. You can’t tell us not to produce pornography.”
We must wonder whether the real motive transcends patriotism. Are Lear and those who travel with him possibly trying to protect their multi‑billion dollar sin businesses? What do Christians have in common with merchants of vice? The text comes to mind, “What fellowship has light with darkness?” “Come out from among them, and be separate” (2 Cor. 6:14, 17).
Back in Old Testament times God’s people tried to safeguard themselves from the nation of Babylon by forming ties with its mortal foe, godless Egypt. Their plan backfired, however, merely inciting Babylon to come down and invade Jerusalem.
In our time, what will happen when an abortion‑desensitized society determines that certain Christians are not viable citizens? The decision will be made to abort them with a death decree. Impossible, we may imagine, but this is precisely the prophetic scenario predicted in Revelation chapter 13. Christians who promote abortion to save themselves will someday face a backlash from a society reacting against immorality. Backlash—a word to keep in mind when we are tempted to cast our lot with those who oppose morality.
Shouldn’t we follow Ellen White’s example and support fellow Christians in their battle against immorality? I think so, as long as we remember one thing: never cross the boundary between civil and religious legislation.
Many evangelical Christians are frustrated with those who profess to honor God’s law while refusing to join them in upholding the sixth commandment. They are distressed to see churches welcome as members in good standing those who spend all week aborting babies—as long as they stop the killing long enough to honor the Lord’s Day.
Whether people honor the Bible Sabbath is not a matter of civil morality. Abortion is, however, being a threat to human life. It therefore should be made illegal.
You may be worrying that outlawing abortion will return us to the old days of illegal abortions with coat hangers, resulting in many infections and deaths. How many would actually die if abortion again became illegal? Time magazine reports that in 1972, the year before Roe vs. Wade, 11 women lost their lives through illegal abortions. That’s tragic. Keep in mind, though, that even legalized abortion is already an act of death.
Besides that, consider the ongoing discussion about legalizing narcotics. Those in favor argue that heroin and cocaine addicts must presently go underground, thus making themselves vulnerable to crime and disease. Legalizing narcotics will diminish the disease factor, they assert. Perhaps, but consider what our society would become like. In your local shopping mall, next door to the Pro‑choice Abortuary you would see Drugs R Us—offering discounts for frequent fliers on marijuana highs.
If narcotics are legalized illegal dealings might diminish, but the basic problem of addiction itself would escalate. And this is exactly what has happened because of legalizing abortion. Pregnancy terminations have skyrocketed. We are losing more than a million and a half babies a year!
Some see no problem with that loss of humanity. They suggest that aborted babies are unwanted babies, so society can do without them. Such reasoning is regrettable, when you think about the value of human life. Besides, are aborted babies truly unwanted? Childless couples that want to adopt must often wait for years because of the shortage of babies due to abortion.
Something else is worth considering here. The rising tide of child abuse since Roe vs. Wade debunks the myth that abortion safeguards children from being abused. Let’s also keep in mind that abortion itself is the ultimate child abuse.
Compassion, not condemnation
Should women who get abortions be punished by society? No, they need compassion, not condemnation. Most pro‑life activists I know recognize this. One of the most unfair tactics of militant abortionists is to categorize pro‑lifers as stern‑faced legalists who would love to bomb every abortion clinic in the country, perhaps even bombing people who are getting abortions inside the clinics.
When was the last time you heard of pro‑lifers trying to kill mothers who seek abortion? A minority of those who wish to reverse Roe vs. Wade do go to extremes by harassing woman who are getting abortions. That is deeply regrettable. Remember, though, that their goal is to promote laws that will save human life. I have found that the great majority of pro‑lifers are concerned, gentle Christians who care deeply about unwed mothers as well as their babies. I’ve also seen that most Christians who favor abortion rights are compassionate and dedicated. If they only realized that a human life has been sacrificed every time a woman leaves the abortion clinic pregnant no longer.
Thinking of mothers who have opted for abortion—wouldn’t pro‑life legislation condemn them as murderers? No, murder is not the word for a confused woman seeking to cope with a major life crisis. A better term for her distressed action would be manslaughter under mitigating circumstances. However, those who reap profits from running an illegal abortion clinic would be suitable targets of criminal prosecution. The poor mother is more a victim than a villain.
The real loser
As it stands now, the real loser is the aborted baby. And unless we take some kind of action to stop the killing, it will only get worse.
This doesn’t concern some people who suggest that aborted babies are unwanted, therefore society need not pass legislation to protect them. Such reasoning is regrettable, when you consider the value of human life. Furthermore, are all aborted babies truly unwanted babies? Millions of childless couples that want to adopt must wait for years because of the baby shortage brought on by Roe vs. Wade.
Suppose that many aborted babies are truly unwanted by anyone—does that mean they are not entitled to protection under the law? Millions are suffering in this world, but only a small percentage opts for suicide. Evidently life, miserable though it may be, seems preferable to death. At least, believing as we do in freedom of choice, should we not let babies grow up and then decide for themselves whether they want to live or die?
If abortion was abolished, many mothers at first would be disappointed about having to bear their babies. Pregnancy often involves tremendous financial hardship and inconvenience. But once a baby is born, few mothers would exchange their darling little intruder for all the money in the world. Their “accident” turns out to be a tremendous blessing. So most would‑be abortive mothers will change their minds and be thankful that society required them to preserve the life of their little one.
When all is said and done, the debate about abortion legislation comes down to the beating heart of a preborn baby and whether that human life shares everyone’s constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Although abortion does have significance for believers because it tampers with life from God, Christian conviction cannot be the basis of pro‑life legislation. Religious preference is emphatically not the issue here. Protecting human life is a basic principle of civil morality.
Freedom of choice
And what about freedom of choice as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights? Remember, if a woman willingly engages in sexual intercourse and becomes pregnant, then she has already exercised her free choice. Now it’s time to protect that baby’s right to choose its own future. Apparently the only way to be consistently pro‑choice is to become an abolitionist regarding abortion.
Is saving our babies lives worth all the turmoil involved in campaigning for civil legislation? Some timid believers in Germany knew something about the atrocities of Hitler’s government, yet they kept quiet as millions perished. Now, amid the present abortion holocaust in America, may God help us to be different. May He strengthen us to stand up and be counted for our moral convictions.
In summary, civil laws such as the abolition of abortion and the restriction of pornography are needed for preserving life and property. Laws designed to enforce religious preference, however, are a dangerous threat to freedom of conscience. We must learn to distinguish between the moral behavior Caesar must require from that which the believer’s conscience owes to God, and God alone.
This is a chapter from Wrestling With Reality by Martin Weber (Review & Herald, 1994), a book now out of print. Slight edits are made to update the data.